George Lachmann Mosse (September 20, 1918 – January 22, 1999) was an emigre from Nazi Germany first to Great Britain and then to the United States who taught history as a professor at the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the Hebrew University. Best known for his studies of Nazism, he authored more than 25 books on topics as diverse as constitutional history, Protestant theology, and the history of masculinity. In 1966, he and Walter Laqueur founded The Journal of Contemporary History, which they co-edited.
Mosse was born in Berlin to a prominent, well-to-do German Jewish family. His maternal grandfather, Rudolf Mosse, founded what became Germany's largest advertising agency, and his media empire included the respected liberal newspaper Berliner Tageblatt. His father, Hans Lachmann-Mosse, commissioned the architect Erich Mendelsohn to redesign the iconic Mossehaus where the Tageblatt was published. In his autobiography, George Mosse described himself as a mischievous child given to pranks. He was educated at the noted Mommsen-Gymnasium in Berlin and from 1928 onwards at Schule Schloss Salem, a famously spartan boarding school that exposed the scions of rich and powerful families to a life devoid of privilege. The headmaster at Salem, Kurt Hahn, was an advocate of experiential education and required all pupils to engage in physically challenging outdoor activities. Although Mosse disliked the school's nationalistic ethos, he conceded that its emphasis on character building and leadership gave him "some backbone." He preferred individual sports, such as skiing, to team activities.
In 1933, with Hitler's rise to power, the Mosse family emigrated and separated. His mother, Felicia (1888-1972), and his sister, Hilde (1912-1982), relocated to Switzerland, while his father moved to France, where in 1939 he got a divorce, married Karola Strauch (the mother of Harvard physicist Karl Strauch), and subsequently emigrated to California. George Mosse moved to England, where he enrolled at the Quaker Bootham School in York. It was here, according to his autobiography, that he first became aware of his homosexuality. A struggling student, he failed several exams, but with the financial support of his parents he was admitted to study history at Downing College, Cambridge, in 1937. Here he first developed an interest in historical scholarship, attending lectures by G. M. Trevelyan and Helen Maude Cam. While he was at Cambridge, his hostility to fascism was deepened by the Spanish Civil War (although he later averred that he had only a superficial understanding of the conflict).
In 1939, his family relocated to the United States, and he continued his undergraduate studies at the Quaker Haverford College, earning a B.A. in 1941. He went on to graduate studies at Harvard University, where he benefited from a scholarship reserved for students born in Berlin-Charlottenburg. His 1946 Ph.D. dissertation on English constitutional history of the 16th and 17th centuries, supervised by Charles Howard McIlwain, was subsequently published as The Struggle for Sovereignty in England (1950).
Mosse's first academic appointment as an historian was at the University of Iowa, where he focused on religion in early modern Europe and published a concise study of the Reformation that became a widely used textbook. In 1955, he moved to the University of Wisconsin–Madison and began to lecture on modern history. His The Culture of Western Europe: The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, an Introduction (1961), which summarizes these lectures, was also widely adopted as a textbook.
Mosse taught for more than thirty years at the University of Wisconsin, where he was named a John C. Bascom Professor of European History and a Weinstein-Bascom Professor of Jewish Studies, while concurrently holding the Koebner Professorship of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Beginning in 1969, Mosse spent one semester each year teaching at the Hebrew University. He also held appointments as a visiting professor at the University of Tel Aviv and the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. After retiring from the University of Wisconsin, he taught at Cambridge University and Cornell University. He was named the first research historian in residence at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Mosse's first published work was a 1947 paper in the Economic History Review describing the Anti-Corn Law League. He claimed that this was the first time the landed gentry had tried to organize a mass movement in order to counter their opponents. In The Holy Pretence (1957), he suggested that a thin line divides truth and falsehood in Puritan casuistry. Mosse declared that he approached history not as narrative, but as a series of questions and possible answers. The narrative provides the framework within which the problem of interest can be addressed. A constant theme in his work is the fate of liberalism. Critics pointed out that he had made Lord Chief Justice Sir Edward Coke, the chief character of his book The Struggle for Sovereignty in England (1950), into a liberal long before liberalism had come into existence. Reviewers noted that the sub-text in his The Culture of Western Europe (1961) was the triumph of totalitarianism over liberalism.
His most well-known book, The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (1964), analyses the origins of the nationalist belief system. Mosse claimed, however, that it was not until his book The Nationalization of the Masses (1975), which dealt with the sacralization of politics, that he began to put his own stamp upon the analysis of cultural history. He started to write it in the Jerusalem apartment of the historian Jacob Talmon, surrounded by the works of Rousseau. Mosse sought to draw attention to the role played by myth, symbol, and political liturgy in the French Revolution. Rousseau, he noted, went from believing that "the people" could govern themselves in town meetings, to urging that the government of Poland invent public ceremonies and festivals in order to imbue the people with allegiance to the nation. Mosse argued that there was a continuity between his work on the Reformation and his work on more recent history. He claimed that it was not a big step from Christian belief systems to modern civic religions such as nationalism.
In the Crisis of German Ideology, he traced how the "German Revolution" became anti-Jewish, and in Towards the Final Solution (1979) he wrote a general history of racism in Europe. He argued that although racism was originally directed towards blacks, it was subsequently applied to Jews. In Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectable and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe (1985), he claimed that there was a link between male eros, the German youth movement, and völkisch thought. Because of the dominance of the male image in so much nationalism, he decided to write the history of that stereotype in The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity (1996).
Mosse saw nationalism, which often includes racism, as the chief menace of modern times. As a Jew, he regarded the rejection of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe as a personal threat, as it was the Enlightenment spirit which had liberated the Jews. He noted that European nationalism had initially tried to combine patriotism, human rights, cosmopolitanism, and tolerance. It was only later that France and then Germany came to believe that they had a monopoly on virtue. In developing this view Mosse was influenced by Peter Viereck, who argued that the turn towards aggressive nationalism first arose in the era of Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Ernst Moritz Arndt. Mosse traced the origins of Nazism in völkisch ideology back to a 19th-century organicist worldview that fused pseudo-scientific nature philosophy with mystical notions of German soul. The Nazis made völkisch thinking accessible to the broader public via potent rhetoric, powerful symbols, and mass rituals. Mosse demonstrated that antisemitism drew on stereotypes that depicted the Jew as the enemy of the German Volk; an embodiment of the urban, materialistic, scientific culture that was supposedly responsible for the corruption of the German spirit.
In Toward the Final Solution, he claimed that racial stereotypes were rooted in the European tendency to classify human beings according to their closeness or distance from Greek ideals of beauty. Nationalism and Sexuality: Middle-Class Morality and Sexual Norms in Modern Europe extended these insight to encompass other excluded or persecuted groups: Jews, homosexuals, Romani people, and the mentally ill. Many 19th-century thinkers relied upon binary stereotypes that categorized human beings either as "healthy" or "degenerate", "normal" or "abnormal", "insiders" or "outsiders". In The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity, Mosse argued that middle-class male respectability evoked "counter-type" images of men whose weakness, nervousness, and effeminacy threatened to undermine an ideal of manhood.
Mosse's upbringing attuned him to both the advantages and the dangers of a humanistic education. His book German Jews Beyond Judaism (1985) describes how the German-Jewish dedication to Bildung, or cultivation, helped Jews to transcend their group identity. But it also argues that during the Weimar Republic, Bildung contributed to a blindness toward the illiberal political realities that later engulfed Jewish families. Mosse's liberalism also informed his supportive but critical stance toward Zionism and the State of Israel. In an essay written on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Zionism, he wrote that the early Zionists envisioned a liberal commonwealth based on individualism and solidarity, but a "more aggressive, exclusionary and normative nationalism eventually came to the fore."
Historian James Franklin argues that:
At the University of Wisconsin, George Mosse was recognized as a charismatic and inspiring teacher. Tom Bates' Rads: A True Story of the End of the Sixties (1992) describes how students flocked to Mosse's courses to "savor the crossfire" with his friend and rival, the Marxist historian Harvey Goldberg. Mosse charmed his students by mingling critical skepticism with humor, irony, and empathy; but they also admired the way he applied his historical knowledge to contemporary issues, attempting to be fair to opposing views while remaining true to his own principles.
Mosse left a substantial bequest to the University of Wisconsin–Madison to establish the George L. Mosse Program in History, a collaborative program with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He also left modest endowments to support LGBT studies at both the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Amsterdam, where he taught as a visiting professor. These endowments were funded by the restitution of the Mosse family's properties expropriated by the Nazi regime that were not restored until 1989-90, following the collapse of East Germany.